Monday, May 11, 2015

Lace Makers

by Sandra Byrd

India has always been a place of tremendous creative expression, whether that be articulated through color, cuisine, music, poetry, or fine arts - even though the delicate and intricate patterns of henna (mehndi) application.  English lace making was a new art, introduced by missionary Martha Mault in 1821.  Her goal in teaching that art was to provide a stream of income to young, lower-caste women who had no other means by which to help lift themselves and their families out of poverty. According to Indian author Joy Gnanadason in her book, A Forgotten History, Mault also taught this craft to the slave girls to give them a means to buy back their freedom.

Martha Mault was from Honiton, an area in East Devon.  The Allhallows Museum of Lace in Devon recounts that lace making, which had probably spread from Italy throughout Europe, has been recorded in the area from the 17th century, perhaps earlier.  Wives of men who were paid low wages, men who fished or labored for a living, often made the lace as a way to supplement their family's income.  The museum explains that it can take up to five hours to make one square centimeter of lace, perhaps thousands of hours was required for a lace handkerchief or collar.

Queen Victoria

Honiton lace became very popular indeed when Queen Victoria selected it to adorn her wedding gown; although she was not the first royal to be married in white, she was the most popular and was married in the age of photography.  The tradition of white wedding gowns, adorned with lace, persists to this day.


Victorian era missionary to India Samuel Mateer recorded that, "Lace-making, introduced by Mrs. Mault in her boarding school at Nagercoil... has succeeded to perfection. Admirable specimens of fine pillow lace, in cotton and gold and silver thread, manufactured at the Mission school, were shown at Madras, and in the great London and Paris Exhibitions, in all of which they gained prize medals... A suggestion has recently been made that it might be more profitable, instead of merely copying and repeating, as has hitherto been done, the old standard English patterns and styles, to get up real Indian designs in accordance with the purest national taste and styles of art, so as to establish the Nagercoil lace as a purely indigenous production."


Martha Mault, with permission from
Profitable, as he used it in the era, did not simply mean that it would make more money.  It meant beneficial. It was a nod to her progressive nature that Mault encouraged the girls to adapt English methods to their native designs and tastes; they were not to be transformed into English lace-makers but taught to make lace in a manner which could express their own heritage and culture.  The Maults and other missionaries networked through the British communities to ensure there was a healthy market for the lace goods.

Gnanadason concludes, "There are thousands of women in their homes doing lace and embroidery as a cottage industry in all the villages of Kanyakumari District and other areas of the old L.M.S. in Nagercoil, Neyyoor, Marthandam, Parasalai, Trivandrum, Attingul, and Quilon. There are established Mission Centers which give out the work, receive them, and pay the women. The proceeds of these have gone into the building of Churches, Schools, Hospitals and Colleges besides supported work among women. The work offers a means to thousands of women who cannot be otherwise employed to subsidize their family income."


To learn more about Sandra Byrd's new Victorian Gothic Romance series, Daughters of Hampshire, including Book 1, Mist of Midnight, please visit:


  1. Fascinating history.In this age of manufactured everything, it's easy to forget how much work went into these details and how costly it was.

  2. It is fascinating, Cryssa. Think of how expensive a lace collar would be. No wonder they pinned them onto each dress rather than sewing them on! The lace outlasted the dresses in many cases.


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